The Great Wall & Beijing – smoggingly stunning
Beijing is a city with more people than entire Holland combined. It is a city of surprises, where hutongs exist side by side with skyscrapers and the place where West meets the oriental East. Beijing is considered the capital of the East, with the mythical Forbidden City, lean Peking Duck, nine million bicycles, and so much more to explore, we didn’t hesitate to add Beijing to our travel plans, and the city didn’t disappoint.
The End Of The Train-ride of a lifetime
We arrived in China’s Capital on Friday, around mid-day, and said our goodbyes to our train-mates and the train itself. We have completed the Trans-Siberian Train & Trans-Mongolian Train and after another 34 hours of staring out of the window, we were happy to get off. The train was so much more comfortable than we anticipated. We were told; the Russian trains were good, Mongolian trains terrible and Chinese trains even worse. This was very far from the truth, the compartment was spacious and clean. We shared our compartment with a German and a Englishmen. The German kept to himself but the Englishmen drunk two six-packs and snored as if there was no tomorrow! The most exciting part of the journey came about half way, where we stopped in a massive workshop. As the rails are different in China and Mongolia, they lifted the entire train and changed the bogeys. Almost like changing the tires of your car but then XXL. Just before our arrival in Beijing we passed some colorful mountains, amazing ricefields and a fast-flowing river creating the perfect ending of our train-ride. We have spent close to 140 hours onboard of these trains and its been a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Beijing – City in the clouds (smog)
When you get out of your comfortable air-conditioned train, there are two things that will hit you like a blow to the face. First the realization of just how many people can be in one place at the same time and secondly the air. Yes the air, Beijing is notorious for its terrible smog. That combined with 30+ degrees makes breathing so much harder and unhealthy.
We spend our first couple of days adjusting to the fun insanity called Beijing. So much people and such hot weather. We were warned of the crowdedness in weekends and during holidays, so we planned our stay accordingly. Our hostel “Happy Dragon Saga Hostel” is located in the picturesque Shija Hutong. It has an incredibly perfect location as its nice and quiet yet close to everything. After some overdue sleep from the train, we headed out to explore our immediate area.
A hutong is an area of narrow alleys with ancient traditional houses. These beautiful traditional houses come with small courtyards and distinct archways.
During the weekend, We visited the Lama Temple, the Confucius Temple, the Imperial College and the Dongyue Temple to get a feel of the city. Wonderfully decorated temples, with lots of folks praying, are usually a good place to start. There was an amazing eight-row dance performance at the Confucius temple. Immediately upon entering the Imperial College you find that there is an incredible amount of history in this city. We also spend an afternoon in the quiet Ritan Park, where the locals come to relax, play games, dance and do sports. It was the perfect place to unwind and to get acquainted with the local population. During our time in Beijing we have found that the people usually try to help you, even if they don’t have a clue as to what you are saying. Interestingly enough, the blocked Google Translate is used for most communication with tourists.
On Monday we had our arranging-day where we spend most our time arranging train-tickets, hotels and activities. We went to the main train station of Beijing to pickup our train-tickets, where only one of sixty counters was serving in English. This and the sheer amount of people in line is enough to drive a foreigner nuts (its true, we have seen some😂). When it was finally our turn the clerk only needed minutes to arrange all (but one) of our tickets for us. Friendly and good service! The remaining ticket we arranged later through the hostel. As our upcoming flight was cancelled from Xi’An to Jiuzhaigou due to an earthquake, we had to redo some planning and created a new plan. Resulting in going by train all the way from St Petersburg to Hong Kong. In the evening we did a couple of beers and had a fun dinner around the corner. If it wasn’t for Google translate and frantically flapping my arms like chicken wings we would have probably starved.
The next morning, fresh with a heavy hangover, we set out for breakfast. Leni’s friends invited us for a breakfast at the Central Perk Cafe located in downtown Beijing. It is decorated to match the cafe from the TV-show Friends and had lots of memorabilia (awesome!). We had a cup of coffee with “Rachel muffins” and a slice of “Phoebe carrot cake”. Pretty cool! With full tummies we went on our way to end up at the six-story high Silk Road Builing to do some souvenir shopping. We took a taxi to the Bell and Drum Tower square in the late afternoon, just in time for a percussion performance in the Drum Tower. From the top of the tower we were able to look around and get our first aerial view of the city and the adjacent Bell Tower. There is an cute hutong area next to the tower, that we wanted to go through, lucky for us the Lonely Planet provided us with a walking route. Halfway, in the middle of the hutong there is this little, mellow brewery where we made an unplanned stop. The Great Leap Brewery has a small beergarden where we had a tasty honey-beer (their signature drink) under the setting sun with good music.
On Wednesday, we had planned a huge personal highlight. The Forbidden City! Famous around the globe, this huge palace complex sits right in the heart of Beijing. I couldn’t be more excited to discover its treasures, so we booked tickets in advance through the hostel to avoid the lines.
We got up early, to be there at opening time @ 08:30. We took the subway to Tiananmen Square and were thrown into what can best be described as pure chaos. Thousands upon thousands of Chinese tour groups were standing in line to get in. With our spirits somewhat dampened we made our way through the Meridian Gate to enter the courtyard. Even though thousands of people were there, plenty of space remained. Its enormous. After a walk over the crowded slim stairs to the next gate, annoyance kicked in, and we decided to turn right to the lesser crowded Treasure Gallery. This part was far more enjoyable and gave us a good feel of the place. Afterwards we made our way through the crowds to the center of the Forbidden City, The Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Middle Harmony and The Hall of Preserving Harmony. Behind it is The Palace of Heavenly Purity and more little temples. We spend several hours exploring the city a bit more before heading out through the Imperial Garden at the North Gate.
Just outside the gate in Jinshan Park is a small stupa overlooking the Forbidden City. We climbed up the hill to see the entire city shrouded in smoggy mist. We walked next to the moat around the city to get to the Wangfujiang Snack Street to have an interesting lunch. Those who know me, know I’m a picky eater and this street shocked me more than once! They sell bugs, no problem, I ate crickets in the past, but alive Scorpions, snakes and Sea-stars? How about roasted squirrel? No thank you! (Thank god no cats and dogs were on the menu here). It was very interesting to see what was on the menu, but we settled for a massive vegetarian egg roll and some freshly baked potatoe chips on a stick (I know – not very adventurous, but it sure was tasty!). After lunch we headed to Tiananmen Square to visit the National Museum. After we were personally escorted by a friendly police officer, to hand in our banned selfie-stick at the cloakroom, we made our way in. This gigantic museum, hosts a wide collection of all historical ages in China. Just the basement took us several hours to get through. Especially the part about ancient China was very interesting to see. It turned out to be an amazing day!
On Thursday we finally went up the wall of walls! The Great Wall of China is one of the seven world wonders and has a length of almost 9000km. We booked a tour over our little hostel. It would be a group of only eight people she said (so of course 33 people showed up). Although the hike at Mutianyu Wall Section is relatively touristic, the further you walk the less tourists you will come across. With this in mind, we took the cable cart up the hill, to save time and energy😉. In the start you see mostly one type of tourist, fat sweaty people sounding like they are suffering from a heat-stroke. After tower nineteen its a climb straight-up, making your upper legs burn like hell. Here the amount of tourists declines rapidly. When you get up there, you are treated with a magnificent view of the winding wall below. It is beautifully restored, but it lacks the feeling of real history. At watchtower twenty we were faced by a wall (how ironic), that says “No scenic spot, travel ban”, equipped with state of the art security cameras. You have to climb over (yes, this part might have been somewhat dodgy) to continue along the wall to end up at tower 22-23 where the real authentic, unrestored wall starts. This part of the wall is part of the Jiankou Wall Section. It is not difficult to see where it starts as there are trees and plants everywhere. This part is definitively not being maintained and you can barely see the wall. Over a narrow passage, with quite the possible drop, we made our way to guard tower 23. That moment made all our efforts worth while as we were treated to an amazing view of nature and wall without any tourists. We went into the long-deserted watchtowers, walked around in the rubble, and went all the way to tower 25. We enjoyed every single minute on this part if the wall, nothing but stunning views and Indiana Jones feelings. After our long walk back to the cable cart we made our way down to have a lunch with our tour-group before going back to Beijing. We can now finally tick off “The Wall” off our bucket-lists!
On Friday we were both exhausted from the previous days, so we took it easy. We walked around, visited the Shijia Hutong Museum around the corner, and went shopping. While shopping Anna-Lena finally had her Chinese Bubble-Tea, and I finally got to try Peking Duck! Pretty tasty, but not a must. We had several beers and ate at a vegetarian dumpling place before calling it a night.
On Saturday, our last full day in Beijing, we had the Summer Palace on our program. As it was the only thing on our program that day I decided to sleep in. Anna-Lena on the other hand got up at 5am to see the retired Beijingers do Tai-Chi in the Temple of Heaven Park. Around Noon we went on our way and took the Metro to the Summer Palace. Busy but stunning would best describe this place. Hordes of tours and people visit the palace, but because of the sheer size of the park, it is still enjoyable. There is a relaxingly friendly vibe at the park and it offers beautiful views from the Temple on the hill. Below is a large lake with a small island connected by a seventeen-arch bridge. This used to be the Emperor’s summer retreat, when Beijing was hot and damp. Now its open to everyone, and is a site not to be missed on a visit to Beijing. We enjoyed ourselves the entire afternoon and watched the sun set behind the distant mountains. No better way to end our stay in Beijing!
Beijing has been a blast! We fought our way through the Forbidden City, had local draft beers in a Hutong, watched a drum and dance performance in amazing temples, met amazing people and climbed the wall of walls! Definitively worth a visit! Now the time has come to leave China’s capital and explore the rest of the country. Up-Next are ancient cities, pandas, a terracotta army and more! Well keep you posted!